Kathy Acker was the most intentional of writers, but paradoxically, while Blood and Guts propelled her mid-1980s commercial breakthrough, it was her least intended work. She composed Blood and Guts in fragments, in her notebooks and as drawings, over five years that began when she was twenty-six years old and living with the composer Peter Gordon in Solana Beach in 1973. Solana Beach was a sleepy California beach town fourteen miles north of UC San Diego in La Jolla. She’d fled New York for California after meeting Gordon on a cross-country ride-share road trip in the summer of 1972. It was there, while happily ensconced in Gordon’s two-bedroom upstairs bungalow apartment near the beach, that she composed the dream maps placed among the fairy tales in the chapter titled “How spring came to the land of snow and icicles.” The fairy tales themselves were written three years later, while she and Gordon were living on East Fifth Street in New York.
Dreams cause the vision world to break loose our consciousness, Acker writes in Blood and Guts. And also: Dear dreams, you are the only thing that matter. She’d known, since beginning her long, self-willed apprenticeship as a writer when she was twenty-three years old, that dreams, and their disorder, would be central to her writing process. Working on her first serial novel, The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula, in Solana Beach in 1973, she attempted to regain a childhood consciousness, pushing herself toward a point of self-dissolution through sex and hallucinogenic drugs. The dream maps, which weren’t published in that book, record her dreamtime forays across regions with names like the Plains, the Village, and the Childhood Land, where she discovers lions, wolves, trees, huts, and streets. “My mom,” Gordon recalls, “was a psychologist, and found them fascinating. Kathy gave her a large drawing that my mom had framed. Later, Kathy took the maps back, to include in Blood and Guts.” Blood and Guts opens with a hilarious, hyperbolized transcription of the tormented break-up conversations between the protagonist Janey Smith and a father who she regards as her “boyfriend, brother, sister, money, amusement and father.” These pages—the last to be composed—were written in the wake of her and Gordon’s separation in September 1978: “Mr. Smith was trying to get rid of Janey so he could spend all his time with Sally, a twenty-one year old starlet who was still refusing to fuck him.” By then, Gordon and Acker had long been living separate lives. “Kathy had her own life and I had my own life, with Kathy in it,” Gordon recalls. “The relationship was not going to change, and I was now marked as a married man. I realized I had to get out.”
In one sense, Blood and Guts chronicles the years she spent with Peter Gordon. She describes their East Fifth Street apartment—“usually no hot water or heat, costs two hundred dollars a month”—and their neighborhood—“All of the buildings are either burnt down, half-burnt down, or falling down.” She writes about her first cancer scare—a mass that fortunately turned out to be benign, but prompted their brief legal marriage in February 1978. Most likely, the disturbance of their final separation prompted Acker to arrange this collection of outtakes and unpublished writings into a disjunctive but emotionally continuous work. But, more importantly, the novel chronicles and melds the writing process she’d begun with Childlike Life. During those five years, she’d written two more serial novels—The Adult Life of Toulouse Lautrec (1975) and I Dreamt I Was a Nymphomaniac: Imagining (1975)—as well as two book-length experiments in genre-ridden narrative, Rip-Off Red (1973) and Kathy Goes to Haiti (1978). As she told Barry Alpert in a 1976 interview, “I never found that simple collage was an answer, because it has to go through me to mean anything.”
By the time she composed the Blood and Guts manuscript in 1979, Acker had already achieved considerable recognition and notoriety in the New York art world and beyond. She’d become the chamber novelist of downtown New York, reporting on sexual misadventures with real-life art world protagonists who were, when not named outright, recognizable to anyone who knew the cast of characters. Her compositional strategies were grounded in the phenomenological experiments of the old-guard minimalist and conceptual artists, but the content of her work—extreme pornography, diatribe, parody, gossip, politics, and trash—reflected the aesthetic of her East Village peers. Her works circulated feverishly in self-published or small-press editions throughout the U.S. and Canada, and were admired by avant-garde insiders in London, Paris, and beyond.
Fame itself figures as a character in Blood and Guts. As Janey tells Bill, her friend and confidant, “I am Johnny. I’m beginning to have some fame, success, now women want to fuck me … I want everything. I want to go out in the world as far as I can go.” And later, as she tells her fellow slave Sahih, while imprisoned in a compound in Alexandria, “I have to work as hard as possible so I can get enough fame then money to get away from here so I can become alive.”
This time, she sought a larger publisher. The Blood and Guts manuscript was read and tentatively scheduled for publication three times between 1979 and 1981: first by Urizen Books, then by Stonehill Communications, and finally by the French publisher Christian Bourgois’s 10/18 editions. Each contract fell apart when Acker feuded with her editors. Rather than return to her small-press comfort zone, she decided to hang on. Mainstream commercial publication seemed just a heartbeat away. Finally, in 1982, Blood and Guts was accepted by Picador, to appear in her explosive January 1984 London debut volume. Grove Press published Blood and Guts almost concurrently that year. When the editor Fred Jordan returned to Grove after a hiatus of five years, he found a stack of Acker’s complete works in the slush pile on his boss, Barney Rosset’s, desk. He found them “interesting, unusual, in many ways remarkable.” Steeped in Grove’s avant-garde lineage, her writings reflected the abrasive Lower East Side early-eighties zeitgeist. He took them all. Blood and Guts was Acker’s “breakthrough” novel only in a marketing sense. The work itself developed over time.
Picador’s first print run of Blood and Guts in High School sold out within three weeks of its January 1984 publication. In an hour-long ITVS South Bank Show documentary devoted to Acker’s work, the arts broadcaster Melvyn Bragg announced her as the leader of a pack of a hard-edged, “tough, fashionable, self-conscious group, now at the top of the New York art world.” In their rush to publish and promote the book, Grove and Picador got the ending mixed up, reversing the last two sections. As she recalled in an interview with the Semiotext(e) editor Sylvère Lotringer, “They got the last two chapters in the wrong order. No one noticed! I told them they’re in the wrong order and they said, Have a glass of champagne [laughs].” The placement of these sections, “The Journey” and “The World,” is finally corrected in Grove’s 2017 anniversary edition.
“TEACH ME A NEW LANGUAGE, DIMWIT. A LANGUAGE THAT MEANS SOMETHING TO ME,” Acker writes in Blood and Guts. And: “We all live in a prison. Most of us don’t know we live in prison.” Thirty-three years after its first publication, Blood and Guts speaks powerfully to us as a literary work, and as a reminder that the genre known as “autofiction” was not a post-Internet invention. Acker’s wildly inventive, direct, deceptively spontaneous writing in Blood and Guts loops back to the poetry of Catullus and Propertius, the novels of the French modernists Bataille and Laure, and dozens of other predecessors. Acker’s dexterous orchestration of her subjectivity, occurring in real time and informed by her voracious engagement with culture, is animated in Blood and Guts by her search for power. Janey Smith wants power, and she wants to know how power works systemically in the larger world. Today, this seems like an impossible quest. But, from her slum apartment in the East Village in 1978, the lovelorn dreamer and sex maniac Janey Smith hallucinates a future that feels a great deal like the one we’re living now.
Chris Kraus is the author of four novels, including Aliens & Anorexia, I Love Dick, and Torpor; two books of art and cultural criticism; and After Kathy Acker, a biography, published by Semiotext(e) in August.
This essay appears as the introduction to Blood and Guts in High School by Kathy Acker. Copyright © 2017 by Chris Kraus; copyright © 1978 by Kathy Acker. Reprinted with the permission of Grove Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.